New kind of life?

The discovery of a microbe that thrives on arsenic, which kills all living things by working as a poison, opens new possibilities about the nature of life. The strange bacteria was found in a lake in California and was grown in lab dishes in research sponsored by US space agency NASA. NASA in fact even created a flutter by linking the results of the research to the existence of extraterrestrial life.  What the scientists found was that life can support itself without the basic elements which are now considered to be essential for its creation and sustenance. Life as it is known on earth is not possible without carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus. But what has now been found is that phosphorus can be replaced with arsenic in the bacteria’s genetic code. 

If that is true it means that life can evolve in ways other than those known to us. The bacteria that grows on arsenic is not exactly another form of life or a new species, but a new kind of life. The search for alien life is now directed at planets which have the same conditions as those prevailing on earth. These might number many billions, though none of them may have been identified. But if life can evolve from other elements and in other environments the number could be multiplied millions of times. It might also raise the question why only planets or similar bodies should be considered hospitable to life. 

There is still some controversy about the nature of the bacteria and the experiment but the conclusions seem to have found wide support too. Many important scientific ideas relating to the nature of life or the universe have implications that go beyond science. They can also affect the idea of human beings about themselves and their place in the universe. It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the discovery of the bacteria which should have been an impossibility, going by the accepted idea of life. But its existence might show that ‘alien’ life might in a way exist on the earth too. The more important idea is that life can grow out of anything and in any conditions. But we know life is stranger than the strangest fiction and the wildest imagination.

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